Hero-less comic book origin story leaves viewers feeling cold.
Why so serious Todd Phillips? With “Joker,” the director responsible for “Old School” and “The Hangover” turns his back on slapstick, irreverent comedy. And based on Phillips’ comments leading up to “Joker’s” release, the guy feels rejected, now that what launched him into the A-list has fallen out of fashion. But his answer is to upend the superhero genre with an R-rated character study of one of DC Comics most enigmatic villains. What’s revealing is that the finished work qualifies as sort of a Shakespearean tragicomedy. It’s a movie that comments on what is funny, while placing the story in a world that has no sense of humor.
Set in an early 1980s alternate reality, we meet Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) on a suburban sidewalk, dressed in a clown costume twirling a going out of business sign. When that sign is stolen by some kids, who then give him a beating, Arthur’s employer decides to take the cost of the sign out of his paycheck. It’s a really bad day, among many, many bad days for Arthur. Even his fellow clowns don’t like him.
Living at home with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), Arthur relies on government assistance. He takes a lot of pills, and at one point, he says that he thinks he was happier when he was in the hospital. His one joy is watching a late night talk show with his mother. The show’s host, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), often comments on Gotham City’s problems. And in-keeping with the movie’s comic book underpinnings, the nightly news is filled with outlandish tabloid-type stories like an invasion of giant rats.
It’s here where the hard-scrabble texture woven into the film by Phillips, who works from a script that he wrote with Scott Silver, reminds us of the other movies that make “Joker” engaging. Sure it’s easy to reference Scorsese here, but absent Tim Burton’s “Batman” and Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” “Joker” would never have been possible. And without the emergence of the comic book genre as blockbuster entertainment, this artistic experiment would never qualify as a mainstream offering. Remember, for example, Brad Anderson’s fascinating “The Machinist?” I’ll bet many of you don’t.
Anyway, the Gotham of “Joker” is in chaos and wealthy, industrialist Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) has promised to rise to the occasion and save the city. Since the story is told from the perspective of Arthur, whose disturbed mind causes him to experience delusions, the viewer is constantly questioning what is real and what isn’t. The rats might be real, but their size and number might be something only in Arthur’s imagination.
So, as Arthur’s problems mount and his villainy grows, the explosion of violence that overcomes the city may not be as all-encompassing as Arthur believes. I don’t want to play spoiler, but it is enough to say that in the “Joker” universe, Arthur’s tilted way of looking at things proves to be weirdly charismatic. His violent actions give rise to a movement of sorts that capitalizes on economic disparities and social divisions.
And while the movement will excite viewers promising something beyond a profile of one disagreeable man, the problem with “Joker” is the lack of a proper foil. If every superhero movie is only as good as its villain, the same can be said in reverse of a super villain flick, right? Apparently, Phillips is hoping that his “no hero” approach will prove to be as nihilistically popular as Billie Eilish’s hit song “Bad Guy.” And, given the controversy surrounding “Joker,” audiences might initially give the film a big weekend, but viewers may exit the theater with little in their stomachs. Are we supposed to feel sorry for Arthur? Yes, I think so, but while his backstory may explain his violent actions, it isn’t a justification. And his “watch the world burn” mentality is hardly a way forward.
While I suspect that “Joker’s” chances at being nominated for the top film awards are remote, there can be no question that Phoenix’ performance will continue to be lauded. Here we see the Joker without his makeup, without the clown threads, and, at times, nearly naked. Phoenix lost 52 pounds for the role and contorts his body into a misshapen incarnation of mental illness. It’s an unabashed cry for help. When the machinations of government cut him loose, Arthur’s abandonment of medications inevitably leads to dangerous thought processes and bloody carnage. And there’s no satisfactory way to bring things to a close.
Ultimately, the message here is a call for more understanding, sensitivity, and civility. Without it, the rule of law will be eroded. But unlike the traditional superhero adventures that rule cinemas, unsuspecting audiences are left with a problem in search of solution, which we assume that will come in the form of a bat.